The God of Scientism
I arrived in America on a sunny but breezy February day in 1982. I defected from my home country, Czechoslovakia, a few months earlier and spent those few months in a refugee camp. I did this in the search for personal and intellectual freedom. Like others, I resolved to escape the yoke of communistic totalitarianism, which degrades human dignity and human relationships. My decision to leave my country came shortly after I graduated from university, where I found that my interest in Wittgenstein was not likely to further my academic career.
America gave me everything I was thirsting for: citizenship, freedom of expression, and the vast open space for my self realization. For that, I shall forever be grateful. In recent years however, I have noticed a few things which have started to trouble me. For a long time I believed that American people were proud and enterprising individuals who exercised their free will within the framework of the US Constitution. Recently, I began to notice that the US media shapes the lives of millions of us, ordinary Americans, in a rather deliberate way. Our media tells us which people and which events are newsworthy, how they should be judged, which movies we should watch, and which music we should listen to. It also tells us who our enemies are and when and where we should attack them with our powerful military abroad, or equally powerful police force at home. Are we really as free as we think we are? Does our media really “shine a light into the dark corners of the world” and does it really “keep the powerful accountable”?
As a young man I defected from the manufactured consensus of communistic totalitarianism. On arrival in America I was overwhelmed by the exhilarating sense of freedom, much like Jim Carrey’s character experienced at the end of The Truman Show or Keanu Reeves’ character did after being unplugged from the Matrix. Today, 36 years later, I feel like I am living inside a bigger version of these movies. It is true that our “reality” comes with a bigger budget and larger space but it still has the same impenetrable boundaries, and is still produced by Hollywood. And, much like in those movies, cracks seem to be appearing every now and then in our everyday reality. Repair crews show up promptly to restore the seamless blue skies, but they get more weary as the time progresses and as more people start to notice the cracks. For now the show goes on, clothed in the brave new world of science, which personifies the very idea of progress. I was surprised to find a strong synergy between the science and Hollywood. The perfect example is AI. AI relies on menacing villains regularly produced by steady stream of Hollywood science-fiction movies like Ex Machina or Transcendence. Our scientists, much like our media, grant themselves the god-like direct access to “the truth” and “the facts”. Perched firmly in their lofty, “objective” and disembodied point of view, the are the sole purveyors of “logic” and “reason”. Unfortunately, the rest of us, being mere mortals are thrown headfirst into the chaos of everyday life. Walking the dusty streets filled with the fleshy and fragrant humanity, we rely on our emotions and “irrational” beliefs, many of them grounded in “backward” religion.
Some time ago, I decided to document the long history of Cartesian dualism which dominates western secular thinking today. I started my search from the position of both a technologist and atheist, assuming that science would provide the answers as to how our lives can become more meaningful. Unexpectedly, I found out science can not do that. To support my findings, I decided to illustrate the evolution of secular scientism as the outgrowth of Cartesian dualism, which separated our minds from our bodies 400 years ago. This tradition goes back to Plato, but it was ignited by Descartes, Newton, and Locke and reignited by 20th century dualists such as Quine, Von Neumann, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking. Scientism, grounded in “reason” and the “objective reality” of the external world brought us space ships, computers and mobile phones, but also the loss of our individual freedom, two devastating world wars and weapons of mass destruction. Finally, it brought us moral relativism, which grants us the absolution to use them.
Fortunately, in contrast to this line of “world centered” thinking, which is utterly dominant today, I found a parallel, “human centered” school of thinkers. Begining with Anaxagoras, Aristoteles and Aquinas, and then leading to the 20th century phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, the language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Mead, the biology of Wolfgang Kohler and Gerald Edelman, the psychology of Esther Thelen, the neural science of Walter Freeman, the physics of Ilya Prigogine, these thinkers collectively reconnected our minds with our bodies, elevating man to the center stage of nature. It is this second line of thought I decided to pursue. I believe, it will lead us out of the moral dead end of positivism and objectivism we find ourselves stuck in at present. I would like to convince you, the reader of this blog, that it is the high time to leave the ideas of Rene Descartes, as well as his contemporary followers, behind.
Today’s scientists would like to convince us that they have replaced religious beliefs with scientific “truths”. My view is that they have simply replaced one set of beliefs with another. I want to end paraphrasing John F. Kennedy: “Ask not whether God exists, ask whether society can exist without God”. To this writer, the likely answer is no. I will document how I eventually arrived at this surprising answer in the posts to come. Stay tuned.
Here is the link to the second post in this series: The Media Are the Message.